Current Thoughts on Stoicism

Meta: While I originally set out to write this essay about why I no longer “endorse” Stoicism as an operating framework, re-reading a bunch of Stoic stuff led me to realize that I still agree with ~90% of Stoic principles.

Peter Thiel recently talked about (in German) why he’s not a Stoic,

Stoics, for example, are obsessed with death. However, I am the opposite of a stoic, I loathe the peace and have no sense in the countryside to live and meditate on the environment. And neither am I an Epicurean who in the face of death concludes that he best enjoys every moment because the end can always overtake him. Bullshit! To be honest, I would not invest a cent in companies that are stoically or epicurean. I do not want to just accept this random, crazy world because I can not change it anyway. No, I want to change it, I want to shape it, and I have a hell of a lot of fun with it. The overcoming of death is not the downfall of the West!

This made me realize that I haven’t publicly explained my current stance on Stoicism, which I think of as different than the typical internet presentation. To summarize, I think Stoicism–and its modern incarnation–is a great framework for dealing with certain types of adversity, but over-emphasizes accepting fate and under-emphasizes the importance of having a positive vision of the future.

Stoicism’s attitude towards death #

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

–Dylan Thomas, Do not go gentle into that good night (source)

Modern and ancient Stoic writers both emphasize sickness and death as the ultimate thing we cannot control. In The Obstacle Is The Way, Ryan Holiday writes,

We can learn to adjust and come to terms with death–this final and most humbling fact of life–and find relief in the understanding that there is nothing else nearly as hard left.

Seneca writes about the same topic in his much lauded essay, On the Shortness of Life,

You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last.

The compressed version of this is the adage, memento mori, “remember that you will die”.

The Stoics connect the widespread tendency to focus on trivial things with forgetting about the shortness of life. On this point, I agree with them. Most of the people I know, myself included, spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about and talking about minor issues. We complain about how crowded the subway is, despair over boring tasks at work, fight with our friends and family, and complain about the weather. As Seneca put it in the above quote, “you squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply”. Meditating on my inevitable and unpredictable death indeed does help me stop thinking about the trivial issues I described above.

While meditating on my own death shifts my focus away from such things, it doesn’t shift it in the right direction. As an example, I was recently ruminating over some silly issue and then started thinking about what a war with Iran might mean for me. I imagined an unlikely scenario where there was a draft and I ended up on the front lines. Thinking about this, I forgot about my original issue entirely, but just developed a strong urge to drown myself in mindless TV and unhealthy food instead. Unsurprisingly in retrospect, contemplating death shifts my focus towards doing things that bring me pleasure in the moment. Why eat healthily if I’ll die tomorrow? Why work hard? Why value integrity? Behaviors I endorse tend to stem from a sense of cooperation with my future self or others, so shortening my time horizon makes me less inclined to value this cooperation.

Because my best behaviors generally come from a sense of future cooperation, I get the same positive results of escaping rumination without the negative side effects that meditations on death produce when I imagine my life as stretching far into the future. Petty annoyances seem much less important when we imagine living for a few thousand more years. And if I’m to live for thousands of years, then I also benefit from cultivating long-lasting friendships, developing good habits for which the return on investment will compound, and building myself into the type of person that can execute on long-term goals.

While this may just be the Law of Equal & Opposite Advice, I suspect imagining a long future life would work well for others given how the long run view seems to produce better outcomes than the death-focused one at the societal level. In his 1997 shareholder letter, Jeff Bezos explicitly highlights Amazon’s emphasis on the long-term,

It’s All About the Long Term

We believe that a fundamental measure of our success will be the shareholder value we create over the long term. This value will be a direct result of our ability to extend and solidify our current market leadership position. The stronger our market leadership, the more powerful our economic model. Market leadership can translate directly to higher revenue, higher profitability, greater capital velocity, and correspondingly stronger returns on invested capital.

While it’s easy to brush this off as a simple anecdote or survivorship and/or hindsight bias, evidence from other areas also points to the value of long term thinking at the societal level: the importance of having a population that saves money, the power of compound interest and consistent economic growth to transform society, and the value of science building upon itself. In general, it seems like people and groups focusing on the long-term emphasize essentials and cooperate better without getting caught up in petty problems like those memento mori seeks to help people avoid.

So, instead of embracing memento mori, I embrace the saying (from Peter Thiel’s commencement speech at Hamilton), “live as though you’ll live forever”.

The need for “definite optimism#

In Definite optimism as human capital, Dan Wang discusses how he thinks economists underrate the importance of imagination and future vision for driving continued economic growth. Similarly, I think Stoicism underrates the importance of positive vision and goals as necessary ingredients of a healthy psyche. While “modern” Stoics like Ryan Holiday write more about how Stoicism can help people achieve positive, ambitious goals, the original Stoics seemed to adopt an “indefinite optimism” stance of, “whatever comes, be equipped to handle it but don’t get attached to specific goals.” In Enchiridion, Epictetus writes, “In short, you must remember this–that if you hold anything dear outside of your own reasoned choice, you will have destroyed your capacity for choice.”

The core of definite optimism is having a goal and vision and pursuing them aggressively. Much of our modern world has been shaped by, often slightly crazy, people pursuing audacious goals. For a not very well-known example of this, see the story of Charles Goodyear’s quest to turn rubber into a usable industrial material. Furthermore, outside of pathological cases, people often enjoy pursuing their goals. In his chapter on the “Making of Meaning” in Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses how meaning often arises out of unifying purpose. While one can argue that we can pursue goals and purpose without becoming attached to them, reading countless stories like Goodyear’s leaves me skeptical of that.

Instead, it seems like goal-oriented people deal with attachment by being unable to despair and relentlessly resourceful. These people shoot for ambitious goals, throw their hearts into them, but deal with setbacks by continuing to seek other options and not despairing over them. And if their original goal somehow becomes impossible to pursue–say they end up in jail–they often find new goals and pursue those. While this attitude towards setback aligns very closely with and provides the benefits of traditional Stoic wisdom, adopting it doesn’t require eschewing attachment as recommended by the ancient Stoics.

Conclusion #

Ironically, while I’ve focused on my disagreements with Stoicism in this essay, I think modern society needs more Stoicism rather than less (read Coddling of the American Mindbook, article–for persuasive evidence of this). However, I suspect that Stoicism would be more palatable to the sorts of people I want to adopt it when combined with the elements I’ve outlined in this essay. Traditional Stoicism provides a toolkit for dealing with adversity and escaping the trap of focusing on trivial things, but my tweaks replace its somewhat fatalist viewpoint with a more optimistic, positive one.